8 May 2016

First Listen: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead - Photo by Alex Lake

At 7pm today, after a week of teasing that saw band delete their social media presence and the release two singles in the shape of Burn The Witch and Daydreaming, Radiohead released their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool

The band's new album comes out five years after their previous effort, King of Limbs - an album of glitchy experimental electronica that divided the opinion of many fans. Aside from the wonderful Lotus Flower I found King of Limbs to be a real struggle to listen to. It never really got out of third gear and it was more of an abstract mood piece rather than an album that ebbs and flows and takes the listener with it. 

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped PoolRadiohead releasing their album on a Sunday, rather than the usual release day of a Friday, gives the release a sense of occasion (it's also a handy and cheap marketing gimmick). With message boards, blogs and social media full of chatter as fans listen to it for the first time, there is an old fashioned sense of it being communal listening experience; everyone getting the album and listening to it for the first time and sharing their thoughts with one another - even if it is a very 21st century communal listening experience as the only thing that connects us are our computers and devices. 

Nevertheless, I thought that I would join in the fun and attempt something that I have never done before. I will share my thoughts track-by-track as I listen to A Moon Shaped Pool for the first time. 

With the earphones on and A Moon Shaped Pool cued-up in iTunes, let's do it...

Burn The Witch
Early reports of A Moon Shaped Pool suggested that Radiohead would take an orchestral direction and Burn The Witch is evidence of that. Rapid fire strings drive Thom Yorke's anxiety ridden melody with lyrics that suggest outsiders are being hunted. Could be a reflection on the current refugee crisis in Europe.

The second track that was put out by the band ahead of the album's full release. This is one of those haunted piano ballads that the band does so well, think Pyramid Song or Video Tape. Yorke and sparse piano with the band framing the song and adding texture. Instruments are plucked, scraped, blip and bleep floating around Thom as he sings about the end of his marriage. Some strings come in towards the song's end. Heartbreaking stuff. The reversed voice effect at the end ends the song on an unsettling tone. 

Decks Dark
The first 'brand new' song on the album. There's more piano, some electronic percussion, the bass and 'real' drums enter after a couple of minutes. There's a choir of voices too along with some percussive guitar that slowly comes in from the dark as the song progresses. The songs takes a turn at the end, the guitars get a slight sense of urgency about them, start prodding and I think York starts to sing "You had enough of me". Could this be another song about the end of his marriage?

Desert Island Disk
Opening with bluesy acoustic guitar while something buzzes away in the background. Eventually the bass and drums kick in. The song sits on the bluesy groove the acoustic guitar laid out at the start and builds up before one by one the instruments back away and we are left with just Yorke, the acoustic guitar and that buzz again. It's short and sweet but a really lovely and intimate moment. 

Ful Stop
This is the otherside of Radiohead. Warbling bass, an overwhelming sense of dread and jittering electronics that twitch around your head like a mechanical fly. There is a drone that sounds like it's played by some orchestral instruments that have been treated by some studio trickery. They do that thing where the band kick in mid-way through to up the intensity and inject some energy. I thought that this was going to be like Idioteque, Radiohead in full-on experimental electronic mood, but it's more like something off In Rainbows, the band playing nervy propulsive art-rock.

Glass Eyes
Back to Yorke and that gentle piano playing. This time it's just him and the piano accompanied by a soaring string section. It's very short, but the strings make it sound dramatic and reminds me of Kate Bush a bit. 

As the song plays I start to recognise it. I've seen videos on YouTube of the band performing this on their previous tour. Driven by a catchy swaggering melody, first it's Yorke singing over a loop of his own vocals, but there's also a choir at a couple of points. This has a real groove to it, then band keep it simple, with the guitars going weird and a little bit prog and the end as they twist and turn replicating the confusion in the lyrics. Sounds like a classic Radiohead song to me. I immediately want to listen it it again.

The Numbers
The one thing that I am noticing is that there is a lot of piano on this record. The Numbers is driven by jazzy piano with strummed acoustic guitars, drums, and some rumbling bass playing. The orchestral influence on this record has also seeped in to the vocals. There's quite a few moments where either Yorke's vocals are layered to give a choir effect or the band use an actual choir. Here there is both. There's also more of those sweeping strings, here coming in as the songs works towards its climax. I wasn't immediately taken by this one if I'm honest. 

Present Tense
Twinkling picked guitars, a bit like in Weird Fishes, and more playing around with Yorke's vocals. This time there an ghostly, mechanized delay going on. It adds a woozy element. Then we have the real choir once again and the strings come in again for a short and breezy section. It'll be interesting to see how they tour this record. It feels like a band record but they've messed about with the songs in the studio, took them apart, and then built them back up with the orchestra and choir in mind. The songs appear simple at first but there's a lot of stuff going on in them. Lots of layers that will take multiple listens to discover. Will they take a string section out on the road with them?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
This is the twitchy electronica version of Radiohead. Yorke yelping over a looped piano and some low bass. The rest of the band eventually join him playing creepy loose-knit jazz, the drums really holding it all together. And then there's those strings again soaring above everything else. It feels like the strings have replaced the guitars on this record. Whereas in the past they may have written a guitar part, on A Moon Shaped Pool they've put together a whole orchestra instead. This song feels like a good idea that never really gets off the ground. I would have preferred it if they had gone deeper in to the choppy electronic rabbit hole on this one. I can imagine it's got scope to go off when played live though. 

True Love Waits
Wow. Wasn't expecting this one to be on the record. It felt that the live version that they put out was the definitive version. This is different though. The band have really taken it apart. Mournful piano has replaced the acoustic guitar. There's a second piano in the background playing a counter-melody. Then some distorted bass as piano notes twist and tinkle as if taking flight. This is now the definitive version of True Love Waits. 

That's that then. You can't keep expecting Radiohead to re-invent the wheel with each album. And they haven't done that here. My initial thoughts are that they've done away with most of the electronic stuff only, using it subtly here. The songs feel stark and contemplative, they are often Thom Yorke brooding over a simple piano refrain or acoustic guitar with the band framing him by adding texture and atmosphere. It's lush and mellow. The orchestral moments aren't over done, but slot in comfortably alongside the band's playing. A great record that will take some time to really get inside the songs. 

Thanks for reading. It's now time for me to go to sleep. 
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1 comment:

esme francis BARR said...

nice thoughtful review -- agree there's some kate bush bits -- i love it -- defo a grower